“Everything in place.”
Mise en place is a French culinary term that we cooks and chefs hold dearly in our profession. For us, mise en place describes a state of being prepared in the kitchen before service.
Close your eyes, and picture row after row of ingredients: minced garlic, halved cherry tomatoes, sauteéd button mushrooms, shaved leeks, and béschamel sauce all neatly spaced beside each other, ready to be dropped into a hot, oiled skillet.
Plates, round, square, and rectangular, stacked high.
A space uncluttered, meticulous, and pristine is a beautiful sight to behold.
Organized. Purposeful. Sure.
Those last three words are words I cannot confidently say describe me – especially with how I approach my career – at least, not all the time. I have been working in the food industry for 6 years now. I am Filipino, and amongst people of different backgrounds, our parents seem to be the most open to their children pursuing careers that are not built on higher education, such as law, medical services, and finance. Although my parents have not outrightly opposed my decision to become a cook or chef, I am constantly urged to explore other careers. A career as a conventional cook or chef is not for the faint of heart, or for those who lack mental fortitude. Many who have worked in restaurants for more than 5 years stay, not because of how well it pays (cooking jobs don’t pay well), because it is comfortable (being on your feet preparing and cooking food for 12 or more hours, 5 days a week is not uncommon), or because we work with pleasant people (the eponymous Gordon Ramsay), but because we want to.
What does that mean? Each cook or chef will give their own explanation.
For myself, my journey with food and cooking embodies a duality: Learning to appreciate a process of turning different ingredients (grown from the dirt, no less!) that are mundane on their own, into something more – a complete, finished dish. It is my version of a work of art, if you will. However, being able to exercise a degree of expression to make a dish your own (work of art) only comes with becoming a sous or head chef, which is difficult to do. I often question my own ability to be able to reach those positions, yet I am not satisfied with being a means by which food goes on a plate, to simply be consumed and then forgotten. The reality is, as a lowly line cook, I do not have much say, if any, in the purpose or direction of where the food I make goes.
The other half of this aforementioned duality revolves around purpose. I am a Christian. I believe that God has a plan for all those who profess the Christian faith. Now, before you run away, allow me to explain. I will not belie what I am sharing – to make you think that this culinary “philosophy” is singularly a product of my own thinking. My faith translates into all areas of my life – including my work. More than cooking to earn income or to make a name for myself, I want to create quality food as an act to service to God and others, to contribute in even just a small way, shape or form to contribute to human flourishing. Martin Luther, the 16th century theologian, put it well:
“The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes.”
My vision at this point of my young life and career, although not fully formed, and in need of much guidance, revolves around more than preparing, cooking, and serving food. It goes beyond the boundaries of contemporary culinary culture. I yearn to impart the skills and experience I have unto others – to equip others with culinary skill, to provide quality food to people, with further reaching effects that go beyond the plate, to contribute to the communities in which we live in.
More – whatever that looks like.
All this not just for income, but to raise up more mature, caring, people: fathers, mothers, sons, daughters. I am not one for pipe dreams. This vision is murky and I am not always organized, purposeful, or sure. But as a chef peels, cuts, cooks, and plates ingredients to form a dish, so too will this vision take planning, preparation, collaboration, and faith to be realized.
Gracefully assembled dishes. A community built on a pillar of shared meals.
But before that, a vision, and preparation.
Mise en place.
– samuel p.